A long-lived misunderstanding has been perpetuated regarding the nature of 1) biblical Israel and 2) the new “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16). While there surely remains some gray area in this topical arena, it is my intent in this brief post to assert the notion that that modern political entity of Israel has no special place in God’s plan.
[First, as an aside, I'm offering two paragraphs of self-disclosure, since I expect that a few readers will click in based on the blog title and tags, without having previously seen what I write about. I am a seriously committed Christian. That does not, by any stretch, mean that I should be associated with mainstream evangelicalism, the Christian Right, or mainline Protestantism ... and certainly not with Roman Catholicism (which in my view is thoughtlessly, perturbingly associated inextricably with Christianity; it comprises a system quite distinct from the one described in the New Covenant writings). While I have close ties to the first "ism," I prefer non-franchise Christian gatherings, I manifest a restorative interest in the unadulterated message of historically attested Christian scripture, and I gravitate toward simpler expressions of church and Christian discipleship in general.
I am always hoping to draw otherwise disinterested readers who would see something new and/or worthwhile in Christianity; my attention-getting inclusion of Syria in the title for this essay was probably a bit disingenuous. The Inquisitions and Popes and Phelpses and Bakkers and Mormons and so-called Jehovah's Witnesses of the ostensibly Christian world have deeply -- and very publicly -- harmed what could have been a more solid reputation, and I want to do what I can, in my small corner, to give another perspective to stereotypes. Anyway, my only specific thought related to Syria is that Damascus is inside it, and some important events occurred near that city, approximately in the years 34 and 37 A.D. See this post on "the birth of Christianity" as chronologized by Paul Barnett. Now, for the substance of this post. . . .]
I am only moderately politically aware, but it seems to me that Israel has figured far too prominently in the political policies of the Western world. I suspect that multiplied attention given to Israel has related, in part, to imputed guilt over such major happenings as the Nazi Holocaust. I find the major political parties in the US to be needlessly divergent on Israel; these divisions firmly place most Christian interests on the right; and most liberal, inclusive interests (i.e., inclusive of other religious traditions), on the left. I don’t claim any insight related to foreign policy, but I figure Israel should matter no more than any other nation. The fact that it does seem to matter more, I presume, is related to religion and maybe history, more than to economy or politics. (If you’re a Christian Rightist reading this, and I’m ticking you off right about now, stop to think about why you clicked in to this post but ignored those on biblical exegesis or worship or matters related to church.)
Israel is now merely a political entity in God’s eyes, no longer constituting the “chosen people.” This assertion, if accepted by Christians far and wide, ought to lead to less rancor about Israel and Syria, Israel and Jordan, Israel and Iran, Israel and the Gaza Strip, and what-have-you. Less rancor, and, dare I say it, more hands off.
Considering NT references to Israel in the past, I had thought it was obvious that the expression “Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16 (also see Romans 9:6) had nothing to do with the old Israel, but I now think that I was biased and that there could be a double entendre here. Could the expression refer jointly to these groups?
- those Gentile believers who “line up” (see Gk. stoichesousin) in thinking that circumcision is immaterial
- the Jewish believers, i.e., if they are really of God in following promise, Spirit, and the Christian New Covenant
In any event, it is clear in Galatians that the Old (Hagar, Mt. Sinai and law, flesh, child-guide, etc.) is painted negatively, so it makes little sense to read “Israel of God” in 6:16 as referring to theocratic Israel/Jews, alone, in a positive sense. This old-is-bad sense may not be as fully present in other documents, but in Galatians, it is.
Portions of Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapters 9 to 11, are problematic for those of us who believe that, as of the crucifixion and shortly after, the Jews were no longer considered favorably by God on the basis of their Jewishness. Moreover, even the most careful and well informed New Testament scholars find different emphases in the different documents that make up our New Testament canon. For instance, Luke’s writings in his gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles are seen by some to emphasize more of the Jewish connections than most of Paul’s letters. On this point, please consider this note by by Dr. Robert Wall in his paper, “Israel and the Gentile Mission in Acts and Paul: a Canonical Approach”:
There is a sense in which the deeper logic of a theology of Acts differs from that of the Pauline corpus, although this may be one result of different literary genre. An historical narrative will tend to privilege the fact of experience as the setting for occasion of the logical reflection, even as Pauline literature tends to privilege core theological convictions as the setting for religious experience.
Here, Wall suggests that Luke’s (inspired) narrative purposes naturally deal with the Jewish lineage. I might take that a step further, perhaps, by asserting that Paul’s writings on this subject (and most subjects) constituted bona fide theologies more than Luke’s. In other words, what we have in Paul’s letters (e.g., Romans, Galatians) was more of an intentional, watershed articulation of the new status quo, whereas Luke’s literary purpose was in this respect more narrow, focused on historically connected narrative of God’s work — as it progressed from Jerusalem to the rest of the world. Inasmuch as Luke was concerned with this progression, it would be natural to build more on Jewish foundations.
As of the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, ca. 33 A.D., the new scene is one in which “Israel of God” equals “people of God according to the New Covenant.” The current people of God are those who are in Christ, regardless of ethnic background or (former) Jewish status.
I share with most evangelical Christians an inclination to resist unfounded, pluralistic ways that affirm other faith-pathways that supposedly lead to the one God.¹ Consisting largely of evangelical Christians, the “Religious Right” tends to be associated with undying support for political Israel today, yet that very political (military, even?!) support constitutes pluralism, in that it allows room for non-Christians. To be inclusive of Israel today is, curiously, the more liberal position — a fact that may annoy some of my politically conservative friends. :-)
I don’t believe Hinduism or Taoism or any other, non-Christian faith system has the answers.¹ I acknowledge a particularly deep-seated fear of Islam, and this fear stems not only from fear of Muslim extremists. Whatever my fears or yours, these are human and are limited by time. The Christian Right needs to realize, too, that being in Christ far transcends anything that may or may not happen with world religions and political boundaries in the 21st century. All these things will pass.
When Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” He was saying that His followers should pay taxes submissively; He wasn’t expounding the benefits of wholesale purchase of a political system.
When Peter re-appropriated Exodus and spoke of the “holy nation,” the “people for God’s own possession,” he wrote of Christians, not of the U.S. or Israel.
When Paul advised Timothy singularly to please the one who enlisted him, Timothy was involved in Christian Kingdom, not in a military or political cause.
Christians who seriously enlist on the side of Jesus and His kingdom will be much less concerned with current, geopolitical Israel than with being in Christ.
¹Not believing Hindus and Buddhists, etc., will end up with God eternally doesn’t mean I consign all non-Christians to hell. God is judge, and I suspect that His grace will include lots of ignorant and erring ones — or else we’d all be damned. I do believe the (bona fide) Christian faith is singular and should be adhered to by all who have the opportunity.